The role of land carbon sinks in mitigating global climate change

09 July 2001

As evidence for the link between atmospheric greenhouse gases and climate change has increased, international efforts have focused on ways in which anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, can be reduced. However attempts to commit countries to reduce their emissions though the ratification of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol have been hampered by disagreement about the extent to which land carbon sinks should be considered in meeting these reduction commitments.

The report highlights the considerable uncertainty in the scientific understanding of the causes, magnitude and permanence of the land carbon sink. While noting that the potential for human enhancement of the land carbon sink through changes in land management practices is finite in size and duration, it recommends that methods used in the production of forest and agricultural crops should be modified to reflect their short-term role in absorbing carbon dioxide. Reform of the European Unions Common Agricultural Policy could provide one opportunity to achieve this on agricultural land in Europe. With respect to the inclusion of land carbon sinks in the Kyoto Protocol, the report expresses concern that measurement techniques currently available are not sufficiently accurate to permit the reliable monitoring of any land carbon sinks that may be designated as part of such international agreements. The report concludes that projects designed to enhance land carbon sinks should not be allowed to divert financial and political resources away from long-term solutions to the problem of reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, namely the reduction in the use of fossil fuels.